Friday, January 25, 2008

Murder, copyright law, Washington, D. C. and Pyongyang: books and reviews

Here is a set of mini-reviews of books I've recently read.

I just read my first ever George Pelecanos book, Soul Circus, which is one of the series of Derek Strange, P. I. novels. I found Soul Circus to be very good. The story starts out with everything going well for Strange and his partner Terry Quinn, who have an urban detective agency in Washington, D. C. However, Quinn is uncomfortable with the job that opens the story, and sounds of the upcoming train wreck start to echo long before the collision happens; a literary Doppler effect, perhaps. This is one book where I accidentally saw comments by others at Amazon. Hmmm... Well, the book deals with the reality of how gun laws in Virginia and nearby States affect life and death in the Capitol. It's curious how people often want to kill the messenger rather than face the message (referring to some of the comments by other readers). Anyway, this is not a perfect novel, but the flaws are relatively minor: in particular, the character and motivation of Quinn are hard to understand (though reading the earlier books would undoubtedly help, given the hints that we do find about his recent past). Nevertheless, there is a highly-authentic feel to the writing, a great use of music to add to the atmosphere, and a tough set of moral ambiguities, and no-so-ambiguous issues, to deal with. If you like crime fiction to move fast, hit hard, and illuminate rather than sugar-coat life, this is well-worth reading.

Errors and Omissions, by Paul Goldstein, is a novel that fell short of my hopes, but that still maintained a good flow and storyline almost all the way through. It deals with legal rights of ownership by artists and writers, ethics in Hollywood (or the lack thereof), the McCarthy era blacklists, and murder. The book also deals with the effects of the past on people, even many decades later, and gives an unromantic picture of alcoholism. Errors and Omissions is a legal thriller with a fresh perspective, though the plot needed more planning- every now and then the story seems to tread water. I can still say I'm glad that I read the book, which managed to mix a lot of fascinating and tragic history into the contemporary tale, and I hope to see more from the author.

A Corpse in the Koryo was published under the pseudonym James Church. The author is a former intelligence officer who was stationed for many years in Asia, and he gives us a very unusual story because of the setting: North Korea. In fact, "The Koryo" is a major hotel in Pyongyang, the capitol of North Korea. In part a Pyongyang police procedural, the novel presents a complex and compelling story told by the protagonist, Inspector O, in a series of reminiscences that are inter-cut with a current interrogation. The glimpse of North Korean culture is fascinating, and there is plenty of action to keep the story going at fast pace, though things never accelerate beyond the author's ability to control the trajectory of the plot. An occasional war-time or childhood memory from Inspector O helps moderates the pace, but these are always a pleasure to read rather than merely a literary device. I did detect a bit of a shift in the Inspector's personality in the last third of the book, but that may have been an illusion because I read much of that out loud, clearly a different experience from solitary reading in the middle of the night. I also need to mention that, somewhat to my surprise, I don't think I understood everything that took place in the story, but this confusion and the many levels of alliances and treachery probably added realism to the story. I doubt that many events in North Korea are ever fully understood by its people, given all of the forces at play and the way that information is controlled; for example, military security is at odds with both state security and local police, and all vie for control of corrupt operations. This is the best book of the three mentioned here, and I'm happy to see that there is another Inspector O mystery to read.

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